For a Union Response to Capitalist Climate Change Plans

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‘The trade union movement urgently needs to develop its own positions on how to fight global warming’

by Tim Gooden

From Green Left Weekly, July 12, 2008

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Right at the beginning of his draft report on climate change, Professor Ross Garnaut points out that global warming can’t be beaten unless an international “prisoner’s dilemma” gets resolved.

What’s that? Simply, that each globally competing national economy, like Australia, gains most short-term benefit “if it does less of the mitigation itself, and others do more”.

But if all countries act in this way there will be no solution to the overall climate crisis — the total worldwide rate of investment in sustainable, carbon-free technologies will fall way short of what’s needed to stop global climate catastrophe.

Survival requires that all countries forgo short-term gain and find the ways to work together to keep lifeboat Earth afloat. Otherwise, it’s everyone for themselves, and survival of the richest, the most powerful and the most warlike (and maybe not even of them).

The idea that survival depends on cooperation is nothing new to working people and unionists. It has been the heart of unionism ever since workers found, through painful experience, that we have to unite to defeat those who wish to divide and defeat us.

Of course, that’s not the approach of the rich corporations and nations, especially the United States. While the US establishment now doffs its hat to the critical threat of global warming, a serious plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has never taken shape in Washington. Corporate America is determined not to concede any economic edge to rivals in Europe, Japan, China and India.

Now the federal parliamentary opposition has decided to run the same line. Against the advice of former Liberal environment minister Ian Campbell, opposition leader Brendan Nelson is calling for a delay in implementing carbon trading for fear of “damaging our economy”. Nelson has allies on the Labor side of politics, not only in a state treasurer like NSW’s Michael Costa, but in the Australian Workers Union national secretary, Paul Howes.

After the Garnaut report was released, Howes said: “The federal government should be prepared to drag out [its climate change] timetable, if necessary, to ensure that there aren’t any errors in the design of their emissions trading system”.

But even Garnaut, an economic conservative, says of this sort of call: “To delay is to deliberately choose to avoid effective steps to reduce the risks of climate change”.

As to the supposed threat to the export-oriented, energy-intensive sectors of the economy that concern Howes, Garnaut notes a glaring fact of economic life, to which the AWU leader seems blind:

“Our trade-exposed emissions-intensive industries have valid concerns … But when assessments of the reasonableness of arrangements for trade-exposed industries are made, we should be mindful of the wider context. [Their] highest possible obligations under an emissions trading scheme … would represent a small fraction of the resource sector’s increased revenue from higher export prices in recent years.”

Howes’ idea of a trade union response to Garnaut is basically to argue for the commercial interests of the corporations in the industries where the AWU presently has members and union coverage. For Howes, defence of jobs means defence of existing jobs, no matter how carbon-intensive the industry that creates them.

This is the worst possible approach for the trade union movement to take to global warming. It ties us into downplaying the urgent nature of climate change and into abandoning serious thinking about, and planning for, how to achieve climate sustainability. It shifts responsibility to others — especially those whose idea is that the bulk of working people will have to bear the economic burden of the shift away from a carbon-intensive economy.

Climate sustainability can only come by replacing, as quickly as possible, jobs in polluting, carbon-intensive industries with “green jobs” based on renewable technologies — even if that brings reduced AWU membership!

Global warming is union business

How is it to be done? The release of the Garnaut report dramatizes the fact that the trade union movement urgently needs to develop its own positions on how to fight global warming. Our movement has a very long way to go in working out the policies that would confront the threat while defending the living standards of working people.

The first job is to use unions’ organizational capacity to help get the message out about how serious the global warming crisis actually is. Unfortunately, with very few exceptions, union journals and web sites say nothing about climate change: global warming should be “union business” but even on the ACTU site, it doesn’t feature as a lead issue.

Yet, all workers need to be as informed about climate change as they were about John Howard’s Work Choices laws. That way, unions can begin an informed debate, among the whole membership and not just at the “peak” level, about a policy that both addresses the seriousness of climate change and guards the interests of workers.

For example, how can we answer the following vital questions?

  • Is a maximum atmospheric concentration of 450 parts per million of greenhouse gases safe enough, as Garnaut says, or does it already risk runaway climate change, as NASA climate scientist James Hansen insists?
  • What targets are adequate for meeting short- and medium- term greenhouse gas reduction goals? The 25-40% cut on 1990 levels by 2020 advocated by the new Southern Cross Climate Coalition (between the ACTU, the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Australian Council of Social Services and the Climate Institute)? Or should we be striving to stop greenhouse gas concentration increases as soon as possible, with the goal of reducing them to a long-term safe and sustainable level of around 300-325ppm of carbon dioxide (as argued by Hansen)?
  • Can any carbon trading scheme, as proposed by Garnaut, reach such goals? To date, the price of carbon under all existing trading schemes has been set far too low to force carbon-intensive industry to abandon its polluting practices quickly enough to have anything like the impact on overall emissions that the environment needs.
  • What are the alternatives? Why, for example, doesn’t the union movement insist on the “polluter pays” principle. It could be based on the present audit of industry greenhouse gas emissions being carried out by the Rudd government. Polluting firms could be given deadlines to convert to sustainable practices and, if they refused to upgrade to low emissions technology, closed down with the workers involved being retrained on full pay for work in new, sustainable industries.
  • Can the transition be left to private industry? Many argue that the climate crisis is so great, and the transition needed so vast that something equivalent to a “war effort” against carbon pollution is required. As a statement from participants in the April Climate Change — Social Change conference in Sydney said: “Climate sustainability will never be achieved if basically entrusted to the profit motive and the market. At the core of any successful transition will be a public agency or agencies entrusted with guaranteeing that adequate targets are met.”

One thing is certain: it will not be “the market” rejigged, by even the most sophisticated carbon trading scheme, that will be the critical force in the shift to a carbon-free economy.

It will be working people who are aware of the issues and determined to play a role in avoiding climate catastrophe. We will be central to identifying and eliminating waste and pollution in the workplace, closing down the old industries and developing and building new ones.

The trade union movement needs to realize this and get serious now about becoming a force for progressive campaigning and policy around climate change.

Tim Gooden is the secretary of Trades Hall Council in the city of Geelong, Australia. This article reflects his personal views,